"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Santa Clarita's newly sworn-in Mayor Bob Kellar. The following interview was conducted Dec. 15. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.
Signal: You've been mayor only a few days, but you've been on the City Council how long?
Kellar: Approaching four years.
Signal: So you'll actually be mayor while you're running for reelection.
Kellar: The way it works out, I am, yes. Now, have I already told you I'm going to run again?
Signal: Didn't you?
Kellar: I probably did. It's true, I am.
Signal: What extra powers do you have as mayor? Big-city mayors make all the decisions; is that your role now?
Kellar: Actually it's not. Your mayor are we in a little bit more of a leadership position? The answer is absolutely, we are. We conduct the council meetings, of course; we probably are responsive, more, to the community, in various groundbreakings and activities in a community vein. But everybody's got one vote and there are five of us...
Signal: You're still just one of five council members.
Kellar: Yes. And you don't have any veto powers or anything of that kind.
Signal: Who makes the day-to-day decisions?
Kellar: The city manager, on a day-to-day basis, runs this city. We (council members) set policy for the city manger. That's basically the manner in which our government works. And by the way, it's a very good system. It works well.
Signal: In the beginning, there was a rotation system to determine which council member would be mayor. But the council ditched the rotation system a few years ago. How is the decision made now?
Kellar: I believe that the council, they work to make their decision to what is in the best interest of the community. It's as simple as that.
You're right, there was pretty much a system in place where they rotated through, and a few years back that was deviated from, and it's been deviated from on, actually now, I think, three or four occasions. And I would just simply say that the council as a unit makes the decision to what they feel would be to the best interest of the community for the forthcoming period of time.
Signal: If there were still a rotation system, it would have been Councilwoman Marsha McLean's turn to be named mayor pro-tem (vice mayor), which would have put her in line to be mayor in 2005. But instead the council picked Cameron Smyth to be pro-tem. Was there a feeling that Councilwoman McLean wouldn't be the right person for mayor?
Kellar: In all candor, I'm not here to make a lot of comments relative to a specific member of the council. I think the fact that ... four people on the council thought that we should go in a different direction, probably says enough. It was the decision (of) four of the members that we should at least hold off a little bit longer before putting Marsha in that capacity. I don't think there's much more to it than that.
I think everybody will agree, I think Cameron did an excellent job, not only as a pro-tem but ultimately as a mayor last year. The circumstances were such that the council once again felt that he would be a good person to fill in as pro-tem, so (that) in my absence he would be available to fill my responsibilities.
Signal: You just went through the trash franchising process. A year ago, you were the swing vote in the decision to put the trash contracts to a competitive bid. How difficult was that decision? There must have been a lot of pressure (to do otherwise).
Kellar: There was a lot of pressure, I will tell you that. At the same time, when you say how difficult a decision I'm not trying to make light of any of the decisions that we are responsible for it was not a difficult decision for me.
Speaking strictly as an individual on the council I had been in receipt of what I considered to be some substantiated information which gave me concern about the amount of money that our citizens were paying to the trash hauler. There were some other things; certainly you recall the noncompliance with AB 939 was a significant issue, and the lack of ability to go to any responsible record keeping was very alarming to me. So ultimately when it came down to the vote ... I was very confident in the direction I was going to go and in fact did.
Signal: When you mention money, the issue was that Santa Clarita households were paying more than the Southland average for trash service
Kellar: You know, that's a fair statement. But at the same time, out of fairness to the process, ... I know there was a lot of discussion about (price comparisons to) Simi Valley. I'm not an expert on Simi valley. But you've got a lot of issues where your dump sites are, distances traveled, there's a whole myriad of things, the area of the city being served and I'm not sure that it's all so crystal clear to be able to get that accurate assessment.
But yes, as you look at a number of cities, it would appear that we were paying substantially more than most cities. So yes, is that of concern? You're darned right it is.
Signal: And you brought up AB 939
Kellar: (AB) 939 is the recycling. It mandates what cites will do in avoiding filling up our landfills, by 50 percent diversion and recycling. We were under the understanding for a long period of time, three or four years, that we were in compliance with 939. Then all of a sudden ... it came to light (that) we were not only out of compliance, but we were substantially out of compliance; and that record-keeping had been rather shabby, at best.
Frankly, when you pay the amount of money that we pay, we should not have those mistakes, in my opinion. So we did go out to bid, and I think now that that process is over, I believe everybody will agree, it was the best course of action for our citizens and our city.
Signal: And now with these new contracts, the price is coming way down. What is being done to increase recycling?
Kellar: Well, they have got certainly a more responsible recycling program that will be coming forth, and the city is going to oversee that.
You may rest assured that the city is not going to sit on the sideline to the degree that they did in the previous contract. We're going to be monitoring the activities of the waste haulers very carefully to ensure that we are maximizing every opportunity for the community, and certainly find ourselves in compliance, and substantially in compliance, to the recycling requirements of the state. And we should.
Signal: The old trash contracts, dating back to 1991, allowed for an annual audit by the city, but it never happened. Are you saying that now, the council will authorize an audit every year?
Kellar: I would certainly hope so, that we will follow through with all of the agreements that are in the contracts, (and) there is an audit program in there. But, absolutely.
You know, you said it, it goes back to 1991, still a young city, a lot of material to deal with, I'm not faulting anybody. But clearly we could have had a better contract. I think we've certainly got substantially better contracts today. And I'm pretty certain that we'll be able to move forward, and we'll pay attention, I assure you...
Signal: Most of our part-time council members have "day jobs"
Kellar: Actually, if you're making your money at city hall, you're on your way to jail, so you'd better be making your money somewhere (else)
Signal: Do you think it's time to have a full-time City Council and an elected mayor?
Kellar: I'm comfortable with the manner in which we have the situation go with the council members. I believe that if it were on a ballot tomorrow for us to have a vote as to whether or not we have an elected mayor, I would support having an elected mayor. I believe that a town of, now, 165,000, (the) fourth largest in the county of Los Angeles, I think that you have better representation by having and elected mayor.
And I want to make this comment. This is not to be interpreted that there is a lack of confidence with our city-manager form of government. It is working extremely well, and we have a long list of accomplishments (with) the system that has been in place...
But we really are at a point, and we know we're going to grow some more. Growth is not over in Santa Clarita. There's too much land around here, and there is such an incredible demand for it that I believe that we would serve our citizens in the overall better by having a full-time, elected mayor.
Signal: But you wouldn't empower this full-time elected mayor with the same authority as, say, the mayor of Los Angeles? You wouldn't change the city-manager form of government?
Kellar: I'm not sure that you need to change that form. And there are some varieties of how you can set up your local government. I'm not sure that we need to go to the Los Angeles form. I'm not sure that that would best serve the citizens.
But I will tell you that by having an elected mayor, you have somebody that can come forward in representing the city of Santa Clarita and working with other elected officials at every level of government county, state, federal they know that you are the elected representative of that city as mayor, and you're not going to be rotated out at the turn of December of the following year. I believe that it gives you much better positioning in dealing with some of the important issues...
Signal: What about a full-time council with full-time pay?
Kellar: Possibly into the future. I don't see it right now. I believe that the council, they're committed. Each and every member, I know, is committed to this city. They do not come on board for the pay, and I know they spend, as I do, in all candor, an incredible amount of their time. So it's one of those tasks you've got to love your city. And I know that each and every one of us do.
Signal: Going back to 1995, you were the last president of the Canyon Country Chamber of Commerce before it folded into the SCV Chamber. You're considered Mr. Canyon Country. How can Canyon Country's interests best be represented on the City Council? Do we need district elections with each community having its own council member?
Kellar: To begin with, I'm flattered that you would suggest that I'm kind of considered Mr. Canyon Country. I'm honored with that thought process. But in all candor I've got to tell you, the way we are structured, I absolutely support it, that each of the council members are at large. I think that that genuinely best serves this community. And it prevents what otherwise would probably be a tremendous amount of diversity in our four communities. So I absolutely support us being at large, and I have always and will continue to have equal interest across the board for every corner of the city of Santa Clarita in my responsibilities...
I believe that we are honestly doing a good job of representing business throughout all of the communities of Santa Clarita. ... The best thing we can do from a city standpoint keep shopping local, folks. Go to your local businesses. Go to your Canyon Country businesses. Support those businesses.
Signal: We'll soon see the cessation of The Newhall Land and Farming Co. as a separate entity. Newhall Land has handled economic development on the west side of town. With Lennar Corp. coming in, do you see the city getting more involved in economic development?
Kellar: Without question. I do. Newhall Land over the years has done a masterful job of marketing Valencia. They done an excellent, excellent job, and for obvious reasons. They have shareholders. They're a business. It really helped the city of Santa Clarita. They're doing a lot of the marketing, and the city of Santa Clarita is getting the benefit of it.
But with the change, with Lennar, I don't believe that we should sit there and watch and wait an see what Lennar chooses to do. It's now in their ballpark, but the city needs to spend more time, more energy, and focus more on economic development than they have in the past. Without question. And that's not to take a shot at (the city). Because they have been active in the past. But I think now we really have to pay attention and do even more.
Signal: Like what? Offering incentives to large companies to come in?
Kellar: Maybe. Possible. Each of those have to be weighed on an individual basis.
It's incumbent upon the city to support business here, that we have a good housing-job balance. We're a lot better than we used to be. A lot better than what we used to be. We haven't had incentives, per se. I mean, we've had some, through some tax incentives and so forth. I know there are other cities that do much more in that regard. I'm not sure that we are at that point, but I certainly feel that we need to support business, however we responsibly can, through the permit process.
You know, time is money for any business. If you really want to hit them in the kneecaps, tell them, "Well, yes, we'll get this through for you. It'll be 18 months." These are things that a business can't survive. They cannot tolerate that. So I think, from a city standpoint, we can be very supportive and proactive in assisting good businesses that come into our area by helping them with the permit process, to be expeditious, and see what we can do in the way of compromises and give them support.
Signal: What kinds of economic development activities to you foresee?
Kellar: I'm not sure what I see. I see that business owners need to be proactive in their businesses.
It's not all on the backs of the citizens around an area to you know, I talk "shop local," and I mean that. But a lot of businesses, their product line goes outside of the city. Every business owner has got to be constantly monitoring and evaluating their business. And we have in place, both through the city of Santa Clarita and through the chamber of commerce, ... programs that business owners can go into for virtually no money whatsoever, and get some outstanding assistance and insight (into) how to better manager their business, to be more productive, and to bottom-line better...
I made a comment the other night with my remarks upon accepting the position of mayor, that I was very concerned about the economic development of this community and that we wanted to do everything we can to support business. And those are not hollow words. I mean those, and I know that the city of Santa Clarita, the staff and my fellow council members, share in that concern.
Signal: You've been dealing with Porta Bella. Bermite. Whittaker. Whatever you want to call it. The contaminated property in the middle of the city.
Kellar: It's had a lot of titles, hasn't it?
Signal: Cherokee, a brownfield cleanup company from North Carolina, indicated many months ago that it was going to buy the property. There was to be a due-diligence period
Kellar: It was going to wrap up in June or July (2003).
Signal: If they were going to buy it, shouldn't that have happened already?
Kellar: Having had the opportunity to meet with representatives within the last couple of weeks, we're still on course. Have there been delays? You betcha. I can tell you this: It is a very complicated process. There are a number of players and participants. This isn't like buying a house down the street. It's very convoluted, with insurance companies and various interests of ownership and so on.
I am convinced that Cherokee has been working diligently to accomplish this acquisition. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that in fact they do. I am convinced, personally, that they are the best answer to the problem that we have.
If that purchase should not be consummated, are we still on a course for cleanup? The answer is yes we are, through Whittaker-Bermite and the regulatory agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control. So yes, we're on course. But it won't be as timely, I'm convinced of that, as it would be if we were to have Cherokee on board.
Signal: Cherokee indicated it would take about three years to clean up the perchlorate contamination. Is that realistic?
Kellar: (If they) throw enough money at it. Actually the figure that was given to me was four, that their target was four years. We're not going to have the groundwater cleaned up. That is a situation where we will have implemented the necessary process to ensure that we have safe drinking water for our community. That groundwater will be cleaned for literally decades into the future.
Signal: The approved development plans call for 2,911 homes. Assuming the soil is cleaned and some groundwater cleanup mechanism is in place, do you see homes eventually on the surface of the Bermite property?
Kellar: It would be na‘ve for me to sit here and tell you that we're not going to have some level of development on that property. Are you going to see all of the 1,000 acres built upon? I am going to say no, you are not. Are you going to see some number of residential, commercial and industrial (units)? Yes, there will be. There's no avoiding it.
At the same time, when we talk about the contamination and I have said this: It's contaminated. There is no question about it. But through the investigation of the property, they have about three or four really hot spots of the perchlorate contamination at the surface. They have various other spots off the top of my head 50 (to) 70 spots on the map of the 1,000 acres where they've got areas of contamination of other metals or something of this kind. They've got a pretty firm handle on what is needed to clean up the surface, and they're continuing to work on that. But for this to become economically viable, some level of development is going to take place on it.
And frankly, at one time, I was scared to death of that. I thought, how can you build and put people on this whatsoever?
Signal: A lot of people seem scared
Kellar: And understandably. And it is only as a result of my working and listening to and having been to I can't tell you how many meetings having to do with this subject, and primarily with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, I am satisfied that the technology, the expertise, and for the safety of our community, does exist, with proper cleanup of the site. And it would only be under proper cleanup that anything would be developed on that.
We need a couple of important roads, one particularly, across that stretch of land, and that's that Via Princessa-Wiley Canyon road. That one is going to be an incredibly important linkage for this community.
Signal: What's your top priority this coming year as mayor?
Kellar: To be responsive to the citizens. We have a lot of issues out there, I know that. But the citizens look to us for assistance on a myriad of subjects. I want to be available for them. I want to do my best. That doesn't guarantee always a 100-percent answer, but we're going to be there for them, we're going to listen, and if we can be of service, we're going to do it.
Signal: You host your "Community Connection" show on Channel 20 every week, and now you're going to be doing something on the new radio station, KHTS AM-1220?
Kellar: We're going to call it "Coffee With the Mayor." It will be a one-hour, weekly radio program.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley. "Newsmaker of the Week" will take a hiatus as Channel 20 takes a holiday break. Programming, and this feature, will resume in January.